Paramedic Program Celebrates 30 Years of Training First-Responders

Paramedic student Michelle Bostrom works with other students and her professor on cardiac patient assessment.
Paramedic student Michelle Bostrom works with other students and her professor on cardiac patient assessment.

It’s a busy day for students of the Southwestern College Paramedic Program at the Higher Education Center at Otay Mesa. They’re on a strict schedule, and four Southwestern College paramedic professors and staff members are leading them through real-world scenarios and workshops they’ll encounter on the field as paramedics.

In one classroom, designed to simulate a common living room, students are learning cardiac patient assessment. In another area of the classroom, students are leading readings of electrocardiography recognition, which is a way to record the activity of the heart. In yet another classroom, students are learning how to use different equipment and machines they’ll find inside ambulances.

Students are separated into small groups so that each gets personalized coaching from their professors leading each lab station.

“Everything they’re learning here, they’ll encounter on the job,” said Geoff Martin, the program’s only full-time faculty, who still picks up shifts as a paramedic and is also a graduate of the program.

That’s just one day. The next day of class and lab, they’ll run through a whole other suite of real-world exercises and lessons that get them certified to be a Paramedic anywhere in the country.

For the past 30 years, the Paramedic Program at Southwestern College has been training first-responders that many people rely upon in life-or-death moments. The program’s home is at the Higher Education Center at Otay Mesa where students study and work alongside Fire Academy students, Police Academy students and nursing students who have all answered the similar call to serve their communities.

Brian Barahura, the instructional lab tech for the Paramedic Program, has worked all over the South Bay as a paramedic for more than 20 years and is another graduate of the Southwestern College Paramedic Program. Barahura said the program is at one of its strongest points in history because of an increasingly dedicated and intelligent student class.

“A lot of our professors are very respected in the field and they bring a great learning environment to our students,” he said. “Once our students leave the program, the people in the industry know that they’ve been hit with really advanced medical training.”

One of the students in this class of 20 student paramedics is Nicole Martorana, who worked as an emergency medical technician (EMT) for a little more than a year before joining the Paramedic Program at Southwestern College. Martorana always had an interest in health, especially anatomy and physiology, and she wanted to combine those interests in a way that serves her community.

“You have to be with people on the worst day of their lives,” Martorana said. “As a paramedic, you get to make it a little bit better. When you walk into a call and everyone is freaking out, you get to look at them and say, ‘I’m here now, everything is going to get better.'”

Nicole Martorana wanted to be a paramedic to help her community.
Nicole Martorana wanted to be a paramedic to help her community.

The year-long program has contributed nearly 1,000 paramedics to San Diego County’s workforce, out of a total of 2,500 paramedics. More than 98 percent of graduates pass their national certification exam on their first attempt, which qualifies them to leave the program and work anywhere in the country. A total of 100 percent of Southwestern College’s graduates seeking employment in the field obtain it within three months of obtaining their paramedic license.

One of those alumni is Jeff Clyons, captain of the San Diego Fire Rescue Department and adjunct faculty in the paramedic program for the past 18 years. Clyons graduated in the program in 1990 and was part of the second class of paramedics.

“The program set a new way of thinking about training paramedics, focusing on the pathophysiology and the whys of doing things rather than strict memorization, which had been the method for years before at other schools,” Clyons said.

Clyons said this kind of training makes students competitive applicants in San Diego County and areas outside of San Diego because of the strong foundation in medicine the students receive. Many go on to work for private ambulance companies, fire departments and some of progressed in medicine to become nurses and physician’s assistants.

As part of the Paramedic Program curriculum, Martorana has been on several real-world ambulance ride-alongs as a student paramedic helping paramedics and EMTs on their calls throughout San Diego. This field time internship means their classrooms are ambulances and hospitals and their lessons become critical emergency situations.

“Everything that you hear in lecture or learn in lab at Southwestern College, you get to go apply it immediately,” Martorana said. “You get to apply all these different styles of learning in a variety of ways so that when you get a call at 2 a.m., after working 24 hours, you’ll be ready.”

Every instructor in the Paramedic Program is a working paramedic which makes them incredibly well-rounded professors, well-versed in protocols, procedures and real-world scenarios, said Martorana.  Each professor not only brings knowledge, but a passion to their students who are dedicated to see them succeed by preparing them for anything they may face in the field.

“As a paramedic, you have to run towards the scary sounds,” Martorana said. “People around you might be screaming, freaking out or crying, but you’ll have to be the calm in the storm and make the decisions that could save people’s lives.”